Mother Lode Food Project: Fighting Hunger, One Green Bag at a Time

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls June 15, 2014 01:57

Unpacking donations are volunteers Sue Mundy (left), Gil Farkas, Domenic Torchia, Barbara Farkas and Ellen Beck

An idea that took root in southern Oregon has blossomed in Tuolumne County and is spreading across the foothills.

The Mother Lode Food Project, founded by retired Sonora High School educators Ellen Beck, 69, and Sue Mundy, 61, has completed its second year helping the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency (ATCAA) feed the area’s hungry.

The need is profound: Hunger affects one in five Tuolumne County households, and nearly half of the needy are seniors. The response has been remarkable. Beck and Mundy’s nonprofit, all-volunteer project has helped increase food donations to the ATCAA food bank by 50 percent.

At last count, the project had delivered 26 tons of food – the equivalent of more than 40,000 meals – and more than $2,000 in cash donations.

Beck says the beauty of this grassroots program lies in its simplicity. “It’s really easy, and people really like it,” she says.

Here is how it works: Neighborhood coordinators establish networks of donors, collect food from them on the second Saturday of every other month (the next takes place in August) then deliver those donations to the food bank.

Coordinators provide bright green, reusable bags to the donors, who are asked to fill them during the two-month collection periods by simply adding an item or two – such as canned goods, packaged foods or cereal – each time they shop. Dog and cat food is also accepted to help low-income individuals feed their pets. When a full bag is picked up, an empty one is left to start the process over again.

Beck doesn’t have an exact figure on the number of active participants, but says 300 are on the email list. Along with providing food, a key goal is “building community,” Mundy adds.

Inspired by the success of Beck and Mundy, who happily shared the blueprints for their program, Calaveras County has started a food project of its own, with 16 “partner leaders” in the role of neighborhood coordinators, and about 160 participants overall. The first collection of donated food was slated for mid-June.

Calaveras project coordinator Tina Mather expects the program to grow. “It’s gotten a lot of great response wherever I’ve spoken about it,” she says.

Collecting every two months is key.

“Our community is very generous at the holidays,” Beck says. “But people are hungry year-round. Our goal is to provide food banks with a 12-month supply.”

Jeannie Hayward manages the San Andreas-based Resource Connection Food Bank, which will distribute the Calaveras food donations. “This gives us sustainability and longevity,” she says of the project.

And it’s not a big drain on donors’ time or money. “After two months, the bag is full and the pinch to the pocketbook is slight,” Mather says.

Project participants are periodically informed by email of what kinds of foods are most needed. Donations are tax deductible.

“This is so simple,” Mather says. “Why didn’t somebody think of it before?”

Someone did: John Javna, 64, a retired author and publisher, got things rolling in Ashland, Oregon, a little more than five years ago and now has his all-volunteer headquarters in Medford.

His inspiration came from food banks facing closure and clients going hungry after the U.S. economy crashed in 2008. Javna says food needs “jumped incredibly” in those dark days, and statistics show families that earlier needed perhaps three days of food per month required up to 10 days’ sustenance during the recession.

Javna says his local food bank leaders were skeptical but quickly came around when donations jumped sharply. The latest collection of six food projects in Jackson County, which includes Ashland and Medford, brought in more than 58,000 pounds of food. Javna himself was surprised – but not necessarily by the program’s success.

“We were shocked to find nobody else was doing this,” he says. “Then we wanted to create a model that others could imitate.”

That’s exactly what happened. More than 30 other food projects have been started using Javna’s model in Oregon, California, Washington, Arizona, Kentucky, Alabama, Florida and Vermont.

“It’s a cool thing,” he says, “but it’s just the beginning.”

Beck was introduced to the project and its potential during a visit to her sister, Susan Whipple, in Jacksonville, Oregon. She accompanied Whipple, a neighborhood coordinator, on her rounds and that lit the fire. Beck returned home and contacted longtime friend Mundy. They approached ATCAA, and it wasn’t long until the Tuolumne County program was launched.

Mundy says one of her favorite experiences of the past two years was getting to know an 83-year-old donor who sometimes had trouble filling her bag. So for her birthday, the woman asked friends to give her cans of food instead of birthday cards – and those cans went right into her green bag.

“It humbles me every time I think about it,” Mundy says.

Then there’s the pair who requested food donations rather than farewell gifts at their retirement. “We got two big bins of food,” Beck says.

She also cited a senior couple that had sought help from the food bank, but later became grateful donors.

Lee Kimball, director of the ATCAA Food Bank, is grateful, too. “I can’t say enough good things about the project,” she says. “Two lovely ladies got after it with great determination, and it has grown and blossomed.”

ATCAA surveys have found that 11,000 people receive food donations each month in Tuolumne County. Between 40 to 45 percent are seniors, Kimball says. About the same percentage are families – often single-parent – with children, and the rest are disabled, including veterans.

In Calaveras County, says Hayward, the Resource Connection helps feed 15 percent of the county’s population per month, including more than 2,000 seniors.

Both food banks are a safety net for the hungry, says Kimball, and provide consistency and quality control to food donations.

Popular misconceptions, Beck says, are that only the homeless are needy and that “if people would just get a job, they would not be hungry.”

The reality, she says, is that “many people earning minimum wage cannot afford food after paying rent, utilities and transportation. They are dependent on food banks.”

Rev. Sally Smith puts a donation bag on her doorstep

The Tuolumne and Calaveras county programs have been modified from Javna’s original model to fit the rural nature of the region. Because the foothill counties largely lack the fence-row neighborhoods common to urban areas, a different model has emerged. Participants tend to be groups of friends and neighbors – service clubs, quilt guilds, book clubs, churches, schools and other organizations.

Included in a long list of Tuolumne County donors are Martha Stolp and the Rev. Sally Smith.

“I used to teach a confirmation class at my church, and I taught the kids to care for those who are in need,” says Stolp. “It’s always been in my heart and my mind to give.”

“I just think it’s wonderful,” says Smith. “There are so many pros to it. I’m not surprised at all the project has done so well in the community. It’s not highly demanding. Some of us are old and creaky, and it’s the kind of project you can do without killing yourself.”

Mundy envisions a long association with the program. “You don’t get tired of it,” she says, “so we can do this for years.”

Beck and Mundy say they were drawn to the project “for the opportunity to give back to a community that has been generous to us.”

Adds Beck: “I was raised to believe that if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem – and there is a problem.”

Learn more at or call Ellen Beck (532-8609) or Sue Mundy (586-3642). For Calaveras project information, visit or call Tina Mather (754-1257).

Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine




Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls June 15, 2014 01:57
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